KYIV—Leaning back from the picnic table, Den drowns his cigarette in a murky cup of water cut from the bottom of a plastic bottle and grimaces as I press him on what he and his fellow volunteers did with suspected Russian soldiers they captured during the opening days of the war.
How did you spot them? He shrugs and lights another cigarette. He says he doesn’t want the Russians to know what to fix.
Then he does offer one tale: a Russian who came to a hospital he and his fellow volunteers were guarding, who didn’t want to take his shirt off. They removed it for him, revealing that the man’s shoulders were bruised in the shape of a flak jacket, something no one would take off voluntarily in a city being rocked by explosions and gunfire — unless it revealed something incriminating, like Russian military insignia.
What happened then? Den laughs uncomfortably and looks down. He mumbles something in Ukrainian, and my fixer, a volunteer battlefield medic who has known Den for years, says the Russians were handed over to Ukrainian special forces. And then what? Another shrug.
“Den” is not his real name. The Kyiv native is on a three-day furlough from his Territorial Defense Force duties to visit his family. Blondish, medium height, with the creased face of fatherhood and middle age, he’s recounting how he volunteered to defend Kyiv on the first day of the Russian invasion, together with his grown sons.
He’s still at it, pulling security in the Kyiv suburb of Hostomel, near the war-shattered airport. He hadn’t wanted to be interviewed, saying he’s no hero. He just picked up a gun and volunteered to fight, as did tens of thousands in the capital alone — a sight, he says, that brought tears to his eyes, as men and some women, young and old, poured into Kyiv’s main sports stadium in the hours after Russia invaded, asking for a gun to defend their home.
Den wants to remain anonymous, because he believes the Russians will be back, and he will have to fight them again. Most Ukrainians I spoke to agree with him, gut-punched by the recent loss of Luhansk, half of the eastern territory Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly set his sights on. They once thought Putin would never dare invade. Now, they believe he will never stop. And while they are thankful for foreign military aid, I heard time and again that it’s just enough to keep them going, but not enough to drive Moscow out. War is the past, present, and future for the Ukrainians, and a resigned fatalism has swept across the nation. They don’t want to sound ungrateful, or weak. They vacillate, just like their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, from bravado to panicked warnings to stoic forbearance.
So, the brutal battle grinds on. U.S. officials mutter that Ukraine is asking for too much aid, or enough to threaten Russia itself, which the Biden administration fears could enable Ukraine to attack Russia proper and trigger Putin to go nuclear. The Ukrainian lawmakers laugh openly when I ask them if they would use those weapons to seize Russian territory. We just want our land back, they say, describing President Joe Biden as forcing them to fight with hands tied behind their backs.
Ukrainians bristle at what they consider not-so-veiled accusations of asking for handouts in anonymous quotes that they read in U.S. and European media, with their Defense Ministry trumpeting that it intends to amass a million-strong army to retake its lost territory. But the Ukrainian people also know that most of their troops fighting Russia are barely trained volunteers, with some basic marksmanship and first-aid schooling, if they are lucky. Not that training matters when Russia is still firing a fusillade of artillery, 10 times as much as the Ukrainians, and dozens are being killed, and hundreds wounded daily. Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, says the Russians are firing an average of 50,000 rounds of artillery a day. “And we are able to respond with five to six thousand,” he says.
And it’s working. Witness the fall of the eastern cities of Severodonetsk and then Lysychansk, with Ukraine in retreat, though Sak gamely insists that was all part of the plan. Though “outnumbered and outgunned … we have been able to wear down Russians around Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which means that they are kind of running low,” on both manpower and resources, and now need to pause to resupply. Sak, a former crisis-comms executive who used to be in business with now-Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, is a prime example of that evolving Ukrainian psyche. He tells me in one call that he is worried that the West isn’t providing Ukraine enough, then tries to reassure me in the next call that losing key territory is part of some cunning plan to exhaust Russia and eventually take all the land back. It doesn’t wash. It makes me wonder if he is trying to convince me, or himself.
Still, it’s easy to pretend otherwise on this late spring day, sitting with Den at a lakeside picnic table in the forests of Holosiivskyi Park, on Kyiv Day, when whole families don their Sunday best to promenade down the capital’s wide picture-perfect avenues, past Victorian icing-topped buildings, and snap selfies at the Dnipro River overlook.
War looks like an afterthought here, in the occasional pile of sandbags still blocking a government building’s windows, or the rusted iron tank traps that multiply in number as you get closer to Zelensky’s offices, as if some gargantuan kids got distracted and ran off, leaving their game of jacks half-played.
And there’s the raging popularity of camouflage, worn as patterned tights, or across a Chanel-like handbag, or anything even resembling a military uniform, a new wartime chic at the city’s numerous cafés and shisha pubs.
Air-raid sirens still go off daily, but despite deadly impacts, few heed them. I saw only one couple leave their table to seek shelter, returning a few minutes later, before their Georgian wine could get warm or their melted-cheese-and-egg bread congealed. It’s partly the government’s fault, as it discourages reporting where Russian projectiles land, lest that sharpens Moscow’s aim. But chosen ignorance is also bliss, a psychological survival tool, when any moment could end you.
The war has also fallen out of the top headlines, even as Finland and Sweden join NATO, and Biden promises to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” The media is doing what it does with wars, by moving on to the next horror: a Texas school shooting; the overturning of Roe vs. Wade; and a gunman opening fire on a July 4th parade.
Moscow shows no such distraction, its brutal war machine stumbling into high gear. Billions in sanctions may be denting its high-tech weapons supply. But you don’t need those if you don’t care what you hit. Moscow has plenty of the old “Kill ’em all” Soviet-era gear.
And the killing has been plague-strength. Ukrainian former special operator turned military adviser Oleksandr Biletskyi tells me up to 200 troops are killed a day, and sometimes double that are wounded, averaging roughly 1,000 a week taken out of the fight. Ukraine is trying to offset those losses, thanks to volunteers like Den, who have swelled the ranks from 250,000 up to a million, if the government’s recent claims are to be believed. But Ukraine’s prewar population was 44 million, millions of those now displaced. Russia’s is 144 million or so. All Putin has to do is mobilize his whole country by declaring a war. Many who say he can’t or won’t also predicted he’d never invade.
“The Russians tried to eat the whole elephant,” a stressed-out senior Ukrainian security adviser tells me between medicating shots of pepper vodka. “Now, they’re just eating it piece by piece.” In eight to 10 months, they’ll be back, he says, knocking at Kyiv’s gates again.
Listen to the man himself. Putin warned on July 7 that “we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest” in Ukraine, adding a dare to anyone who hopes to defeat Russia on the battlefield: “Let them try.” And Putin has compared his Ukraine invasion to Peter the Great’s conquest of Sweden, saying it’s his “destiny” to recapture the land seized by the 18th-century emperor. He even mentioned the now-Estonian city Narva, sending that small Baltic country into a tizzy.
“I think Putin’s aim is 1) to render Ukraine non-viable — crippled, uninvestable, in political social and economic torment, and 2) to show that the West doesn’t have the willpower to resist him,” says Edward Lucas, of the Center for European Policy Analysis. He and I had just pulsed Baltic opinion at Estonia’s Lennart Meri security conference, where most attendees seem to believe Estonia and its neighbor Lithuania would be next on the menu, if Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine. “We have/had a choice of confronting Putin with a functioning 40-million-strong country on our side or waiting until Ukraine is defeated and doing it later in the Baltic,” Lucas says.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines agrees that Moscow still wants to swallow Ukraine; she just doesn’t think Moscow can, calling it a “disconnect” between Putin’s ambitions and his military’s abilities.
Ukrainian officials appreciate that vote of confidence, and the nearly $55 billion in promised U.S. aid, including more than $7 billion in security assistance the U.S. has partly delivered since Russian forces invaded on Feb. 24. Despite the latest infusions of aid, Sak tells me, “I’m grateful, but we need more.” And faster. “Why not start training Ukrainian pilots how to fly advanced jets right now,” because within a few months, the West is finally going to realize Ukraine needs them to survive, he asks.
Ukrainian officials also gripe privately that the West, the Pentagon especially, takes a “father knows best” attitude to Ukraine’s requests, as in “we know better than you what you need to win this war.” For instance, giving them a dozen long-range artillery systems, called HIMARS for High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, when they say they could use at least twice that or more to turn the battle.
It’s a question that makes U.S. officials uncomfortable, because as one senior U.S. official tells me, the slow-rolling has come from a Biden White House still concerned that Kyiv might antagonize Moscow if it does too well on the battlefield. “Not getting enough to turn the tide is accurate, and a big debate within the administration,” and with U.S. allies, the official says. The Pentagon is also concerned it will so drain its stocks feeding the Ukraine war effort that it might be less well-prepared to defend U.S. territory. “But we are moving in a better direction,” the official insists.
A State Department spokesman, speaking anonymously, would only offer a banal “We have moved quickly to send Ukraine a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.”
In Kyiv, what they see as their Western allies’ delayed absorption of battlefield realities is measured in the lives of people they know lost forever, and in territory lost that will be even harder to win back, as the defender almost always has the advantage.
And Ukraine can’t train enough people fast enough to keep up with Russia’s onslaught. Officials welcome a new British initiative to train up to 10,000 soldiers every four months, which Sak tells me is already underway. But that’s 4,000 short of the numbers they are losing every four months, by Biletskyi’s count. And the Ukrainian military’s own training remains slapdash and uneven, multiple officials and military trainers tell me, in part because commanders need troops as fast as they can get them for the front.
And despite Zelensky’s early attempts at rooting out Ukraine’s infamous corruption, it’s still a “telephone society” i.e., you only get things done if you know the right person. Or if you get the right piece of paper to, say, leave the country if you’re a male of “conscription age” between 18 to 60.
At least two men were removed from my train by Ukrainian border guards before we crossed into Poland — a student in his twenties, and a fortyish guy in a wheelchair with visibly wasted legs — apparently for not having the right pieces of paper proving they’d been released from military service. They were left at an empty station platform just inside Ukraine. That the border guards felt they couldn’t allow at least the guy in the wheelchair to pass spoke volumes, to either their commitment to bureaucracy, or their belief that they need every last man to survive the Russian assault. The border-guard agency did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
This was supposed to be a good news story. At the start of the war, I’d heard how Ukraine had overhauled its military, chastened after Moscow’s near-bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014. Aided and advised mainly by the U.S., U.K., Canada, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia, the Ukrainians made changes that meant their troops in 2022 were better led, provisioned, and fed than their Russian counterparts. Or so the common wisdom went, as Russian forces turned tail and exited western Ukraine in mid-May.
Among the changes I was told by senior U.S., European, Baltic, and Ukrainian officials that were made: They retired most Soviet-trained, old-school-style generals who did not play well, or share information well, with others. They created a non-commissioned officer corps, sergeants who actually take care of the troops, instead of bullying and beating them, as per traditional Russian, and past Ukrainian practice. They mostly fixed their broken logistics delivery system. Better, but not totally fixed, a Kyiv-based military official explains.
Perhaps most important of all, Ukraine’s special-operations troops learned to fight less like U.S. Army Rangers assault troops, punching through enemy lines in a battle charge, and more like Green Berets, who practice the dark art of unconventional warfare, usually behind enemy lines. Ukrainian special operators worked with volunteers like Den, organizing semi-trained locals into lethal squads to secure neighborhoods, gather intelligence, and sometimes protect elite units, as Den’s crew did for a drone reconnaissance team. Den would saunter into the nearest town to get supplies for the drone operators, passing Russian troops who were none the wiser.
Special operators worked with locals that trapped and decimated the infamous 40-mile Russian convoy headed for Kyiv back in March. One group worked to open dams, turning fields into a muddy quagmire that Russian tanks dared not enter. Armed drones struck the flood-trapped convoy, while commandos hit with tank-killing rockets, usually under cover of dark, leaving the ribbon of surviving Russian troops trapped between smoking wrecks, breathing in the stench of their immolated comrades.
It’s called an asymmetric attack — using inferior numbers with superior local knowledge to harass, kill, maim, and psych out one’s opponent. Such devastating trickery was turned high art by the CIA’s precursor, the World War II era Office of Strategic Services. The OSS’s special-operations branch parachuted “Jedburgh” teams into France in 1944, to work with the French resistance and prepare the way for the Normandy landings.
Ukraine’s special-operations forces have been at work the same way, current and former officials inside Ukraine tell me. They point to the near killing of a senior city official who’d been cooperating with the Russians in occupied Melitopol by a mysterious explosion. “Maybe he just lit a cigarette too close to the stove gas,” a lawmaker smirks at me, refusing to confirm or deny the operation. Even the Pentagon, normally reluctant to comment on actions behind Russian lines, confirmed “growing indications of resistance against the Russian occupation,” including “assassinations of local Russian officials,” a senior U.S. defense official said.
Ukraine is defending itself as it has for centuries, environmental scientist Alex Zakletsky tells me, over a sadly dwindling supply of Crimean tea while sitting outside at Cheburek.UA, one of the few restaurants to stay open throughout the conflict, winning a loyal military, and volunteer, following. “We knew we’d have to save Ukraine ourselves,” because the army is too small to defeat the Russians, and the government is too corrupt, with many senior officials in Russia’s pocket, he says, the beret atop his mismatched camouflage “uniform” striking a revolutionary note.
So, when a fellow scientist offered Zakletsky a detailed topographical map of then-Russian-occupied Chernobyl, he didn’t give it to just anyone. He reached out to a friend’s spouse, high up in the security services — the only person he could think of to trust with such sensitive information, gleaned from tracking wolf packs that thrive in Chernobyl’s irradiated forests. He was led to believe it was very useful in taking back Chernobyl, but he refuses to provide more details, as the troops might have to use whatever they found in those maps to fight Russia on the same ground.
Ukrainians are willing, but winning also takes skill — at least some skill. “I just got asked to train 1,500 guys to go behind enemy lines, in roughly a week,” retired U.S. special operations Marine Col. Andrew Milburn tells me, over omelets at the ironically named Bimbo Café. That’s the kind of skill the U.S. would take months if not years to impart.
White-haired and occasionally limping from an old rugby injury, Milburn has his black retriever-like Ukrainian rescue dog in tow, interjecting excited barks as Milburn relates how his firm, the Mozart Group, is regularly asked to do what he considers impossible: turn out highly skilled troops in the time it would normally take to teach how to simply load and fire a weapon safely. And his funding, from international donations, is due to run out in September, and he can’t seem to convince the Ukrainian government that he can help, or that they need it.
A senior European-based special operator who has advised the Ukrainians for years insists they do have their own training programs, but they’re not always well-organized or well-attended. And the soldiers-turned-trainers hate staying in the rear, away from the fight. It makes them feel like cowards.
“We still have too many heroes,” former Ukrainian special operator Biletskyi tells me. He’s seen how NATO troops work, and he says the disorganized training, for volunteers and regular troops, is just one of the many military systems that’s being exposed as subpar as the war stretches on.
And when Ukrainians see things going wrong, they step up to fix it, hence what Biletskyi, Milburn, and the senior special-operations official all call the “hero” syndrome: Individuals feel they must step up and save the day.
“We have shown that … even people with basic training are able to achieve success because they are fighting for their land,” counters Defense spokesman Sak. “But if you are under a barrage of phosphorus bombs, cluster munitions, and if you’re being shot at incessantly by Russian heavy artillery,” what you need is a way to stop that deadly rain.
European officials are worried that Americans don’t know how bad it’s going, or how bad it will likely get. “The Russians … they are just going to keep coming,” one tells me, making angry waves in her cappuccino with her spoon. “And the West is going to start asking Ukraine, ‘We gave you so many weapons.… Why aren’t you doing better?’”
And we’re just going to stand by and blame the victim and watch a bloody marathon that is measured in years, not days or months, she says. And Putin knows that, biding his time until the Western alliance gets restive, divided, and eventually turns away.
This time, we’re prepared, counters scientist-turned-volunteer Zakletsky, who insists the Russians won’t pass easily through Chernobyl to Kyiv a second time, because now the locals, renowned hunters, are prepared. He visited what he calls the “werewolf” tribe for a wedding. At night’s end, the wedding guests started baying at the moon like wolves marking their territory. To his surprise, an actual wolf pack answered back, acknowledging the villagers’ claim. Should the Russians come back, he says, the villagers, and the whole country, will fight like a wolf pack.
Den puts it more simply: “We killed them the last time.” If they come back, he says, “we’ll kill them again.”
|Ukrainian photojournalist Olena Maksymenko contributed to this report.|